We began to worry in 2012. Here at TSLA, we hit an all-time low in terms of the percentage of briefs that originated in Singapore. The figure was just 38 per cent. And with the whopping majority of work coming to the agency from brands across much of South-East Asia and China, we began to be concerned by whether we were losing our footprint in our country of origin - Singapore - or if we were simply exchanging it for our more "natural" footprint in Asia.
We say natural because we haven't, as a business, focused specifically on trying to be in each Asian country. Natural also because we tend to be particularly reactive, rather than proactive, when it comes to chasing down business - especially in Singapore. Yet we are baffled, confused, surprised and encouraged by the interest coming from as far away as Auckland and from as near as Vietnam. Maybe Asia is not as fragmented as we thought it was, after all?
In many parts of Asia, unification has already happened. If a forthcoming Association of Southeast Asian Nations free trade agreement is allowed to pass, telecommunications roaming surcharges for both talk-time and data could be a thing of the past across South-East Asia. Essentially, that will make every call a local call. That is literally regional communication becoming "national". Yes, there remain the nuanced differences in language and legislation but, creatively, it is possible to create campaigns that reconcile and appease the common divides of relevance, humour and culture in general.
Remember our friends in Thailand? It's not as though we ever understood what they were saying, but we still viewed their ads more than 21 million times between 2010 and 2012 and laughed until we cried.
Just to be clear, we're not encouraging a cookie-cutter approach here. Just the opposite, actually - we believe more work, more time and more effort needs to be applied if we are to roll out campaigns that are super-relevant to all of Asia. We need a new way of thinking that creates content and campaigns that are easily identifiable and understood by a new unified Asian psychographic.
In our daily grind of putting together briefs and developing strategy, we are constantly reviewing regional marketing data - both qualitative and quantitative - from across the region. The patterns are uncannily similar across gender, age, income and educational levels right across Asia-Pacific, to such an extent that we are now in the throes of putting together a paper to map these similarities and what they mean for global marketers wanting to do business in Asia.
Until now, it seems that, in Asia, we have been quick to point out the differences but slow - almost reluctant - to really understand where the similarities lie and how we can leverage our knowledge of them to create what Asia would define as great, effective work.
When asked at Cannes last year about the state of the advertising and marketing industry in China, the creative director of a certain top-ranking agency responded thus: "Oh, it's coming along, but we have a long way to go. China is still very undeveloped, compared with... "
We remain careful and cautious of calling a market - any market, whether in Asia or abroad - "developing" or "undeveloped". Perhaps this definition might be useful to the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank but, as defined by a marketer, it is our professional belief that the majority of the Asia-Pacific region is not just developed, but actually quite advanced.
We believe that Asian clients reflect the demands of the market, and many of those demands reflect the vast advancements that Asia has made in the past five years. Traditional Western constructs of marketing, models, roles and scopes are simply outdated or irrelevant when applied in Asia. If anything, many of these models act as benchmarks upon which to improve.
For example, take international standards in focus group moderation. We sat in on an Indonesian focus group this afternoon and were briefed on the methodology for the group. Seeing that this was a focus group conducted in Asia for an Asian brand, the research company told us that traditional moderation was insufficient to obtain truly genuine answers. It had, therefore, appended a sheet of added methods employed specifically for Asian respondents that take into account the broad characteristics of the Asian sample audience, including eye contact, body language and volume.
Looking at this sheet, I couldn't help but wonder if this would really apply only to the Asian sample, or whether it could work just as well for the rest of the world and if, in fact, I was holding in my hands a new and advanced proprietary research method that could uncover better responses from focus groups in general.
Research is just the tip of the iceberg in realising the potential of a unified, developed Asia.
Our firm belief is that the real Asia of today is robust, advanced, progressive and unified.
We just need to get better at communicating all of this to our friends around the world.
Nicholas Ye is the chief executive of The Secret Little Agency
At a glance
- Founded: 2007
- Principals: Nicholas Ye, chief executive; Eunice Tan, partner, strategy and development; Mavis Neo, partner, technology and innovation; Kris Kam, managing partner; Hanyi Lee, group creative officer
- Staff: 28
- Locations: Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong
- Favourite digital campaign of 2012: Chipotle's gold Cannes Lion-winning "back to the start" by Creative Artists Agency, Los Angeles
- Learnt anything new lately? That we need to remain as small as possible to attract, retain and afford the very best talent